What does strong instructional leadership in math look like?

As adults, we often carry distinct memories of how we experienced math as students. If we experienced K-12 math in the United States, chances are, we subscribe to one of these common  binary beliefs: Either “I’m a math person” or “I’m not a math person.” I know this firsthand, because I was a student who thought  I was not “good” at math at age six, and it wasn’t until much later –when I began teaching mathematics myself – that I understood what “mathematics” really means and how it describes our world. As a teacher, I realized there is no genetic link to being a “math person” or not. Rather, all children and adults have the capacity to learn, grow, find joy and success in math.

After spending two decades as a math teacher, department chair, coach and policymaker, I now support middle school educators, school leaders and district officials across the country tackling racial inequity in mathematics. From a young age, children internalize racial stereotypes around who is “good” at math. Data has shown that Black students, Latinx students and/or students experiencing poverty are disproportionately underprepared for upper-level math courses. In other words, when these children graduate from eighth grade, they’re more likely to be placed in remedial high school math classes – a placement which, in turn, decreases their chances of postsecondary success. As we know, this inequitable systemhas been in place in public education for generations. School leaders have a unique opportunity to help disrupt this pattern of inequity.  

Breaking this generational cycle is a big, systemic opportunity that many educators across the country are working to address. Every day, on the ground, we’re engaged in disrupting the binary thinking around what it means to be a “math person.” We’re developing shared beliefs and practices among principals and teachers in order to cultivate mathematicians in every school. After visiting hundreds of schools and working with committed educators across the country, I’ve learned (and research shows) that a principal can have a tremendous impact on both teachers’ and students’ confidence, attitudes and relationships towards mathematics.

I believe all leaders, parents and teachers want to see students experience success and joy in math, persevering and problem-solving, coming up with (and testing) conjectures and collaborating with their peers to challenge their thinking. That discovery is what mathematics is all about. So how can we cultivate this joy and success as school leaders?  Here are three common practices I’ve observed in school leaders who successfully cultivate mathematicians in their school buildings.

Three common practices of principals who lead for math equity: 

  1. Principals articulate the core belief that every adult and student is a mathematician.

It’s clear a school is committed to cultivating mathematicians when I encounter students who ask curious questions, connect math to the world and apply what they’re learning in a different context. These students believe they can improve in math and (perhaps most foundationally) believe that they are already mathematicians simply because they do math.

Children develop these beliefs when their teachers also hold these beliefs. One discouraging comment from a teacher can stick with students for the rest of their lives. We know it’s true, because many of us have lived it. We’ve all been math students ourselves, and we can remember how brief moments can impact the beliefs we hold about ourselves into our adulthood. As adults, many of us bring these harmful memories to our classrooms and need opportunities to unpack and unlearn them in order to build up our confidence in doing math again.

If we want to cultivate positive math identities in young people and teachers , we must encourage them to use (not find, because they already exist) their strengths and voices, and we must cultivate these values across a school community. As a leader, you can adopt and instill the core belief in your team members that everyone who does math is a mathematician. Leaders must actually believe this in order to genuinely articulate it. Make this belief a part of your staff meetings, and not just in conversations with math teachers. Make it a part of your coaching and post-observation conversations. Say it to teachers, families and students (i.e. “Math is a human activity. We’re all mathematicians.”), and you’ll see the belief begin to take hold in the culture and foundation of your school.

  1. Principals adopt a learning stance around math and join in on the work.

Adopting a learning stance is one powerful way to break out of the binary thinking around being a “math person” or “not a math person.” School leaders can join teachers in math PD as active participants and “doers” of mathematics. 

During a coaching or PD session, leaders can learn alongside teachers. That means when teachers are asked to work on math tasks together, leaders also work on the math tasks (don’t be afraid!). Mathematics is not about speed or getting the correct answer. Rather, it’s about modeling problem-solving, asking questions and saying “I’m not sure” when you’re stuck.  When teachers discuss what they saw and heard in a math classroom, leaders are also part of that conversation, actively listening and asking questions. Students and adults must know that getting a wrong answer is not indicative of math intelligence. Rather, a mathematical mistake is an opportunity to learn, make sense together and ask questions like, “What strategies did you use? What might you try next?” As a leader, you can demonstrate these beliefs most powerfully by being vulnerable, taking risks and exploring new mathematical strategies yourself.

Often, a principal is reluctant to engage in doing math because they are afraid they will appear “bad” at math or maybe they have a fear about revealing their learning to their team. But if we’re trying to shift classroom culture toward one that values mistakes as learning opportunities, a leader’s willingness to model their learning stance can make a powerful impact on the way teachers see their own journey of development and discovery as well as how they relate to their students.

  1. Principals work with teachers to develop  non-negotiable, equity-centered math practices across grade-levels.

You don’t need to be an expert in mathematics to develop expertise in math pedagogy. Even if you don’t have a math background, you can work with math teachers and coaches to develop nonnegotiables around the practices you, as a team, want to see in your building’s math classrooms. You might begin with exploring the question, “What mathematical skills and knowledge should our graduates leave our school community with?”

As you develop those nonnegotiables over time, you will ensure that students experience a thoughtful, seamless progression through the grades. Sample non-negotiables might include: students working in groups to solve open-ended tasks together, students readily accessing relevant and labeled mathematical tools and manipulatives in every classroom, students regularly writing in math journals and referencing math libraries, students engaging in math conferences and congresses to promote discourse, students celebrating mistakes or students doing the majority of the thinking (rather than the teacher). You might say that you want all students to be able to revise their work weekly and use relevant academic language as they revise their thinking in math.

If your school does not have a “math department,” you might consider aligning teachers’ schedules across grade levels so they have regular time to meet, collaborate, do math together, look at student work and document their interventions and improvements for students over time. When looking at student work, develop a team norm to focus on the abilities and strengths students do have, rather than what they don’t have yet.

All in all, principals are in the unique position to lead for equity in mathematics.  Articulating the belief that everyone can be successful in math, adopting a learning stance and developing clear expectations across grade levels are three ways school leaders can disrupt the narrative and systems that make mathematics a “gatekeeper” in our society. Doing so can help reimagine math as a “gate opener,” particularly for our most marginalized students.  These efforts require a strong foundation built upon relationships and trust among adults as well as students in the building.  And when the foundation is strong, positive student outcomes in math will inevitably follow.

In the process of doing mathematics, principals will develop positive math identities and learn more about themselves as mathematicians. Modeling this journey for teachers and students allows them to foster curiosity – a true quality of a mathematician.  Because if adults are finding joy in doing math, then students are also finding joy in doing math. And doing math makes us all mathematicians.